Slot Machine Near Misses Are Perfectly Tuned to Stoke the Addiction

By Eliza Strickland | February 12, 2009 10:36 am

near missTo a gambler’s brain, a near miss provides almost the same high as a win, according to a new study that helps explain the allure of slot machines and the difficulty that some gamblers have in walking away. “The near-miss is quite a paradoxical event,” [researcher Luke] Clark says. Gamblers who almost win put “their head down in their hands — they can’t believe it. And then the next thing they do is place another bet” [Science News].

In the small study, published in Neuron [subscription required], researchers had 15 volunteers play a slot machine while their brain activity was recorded with fMRI scans. When the researchers compared the scans, they found that near misses drew more blood to reward regions such as the insula and the ventral striatum than full misses did [ScienceNOW Daily News]. These areas are also activated by rewards like chocolate and cocaine; when the near misses partially activated the so-called reward pathway, it released pleasant doses of the brain chemical dopamine.

Researchers say it makes sense for the brain to respond to almost hitting a target. For some tasks, such as learning to kick a soccer ball into a goal or firing an arrow at a target, near-misses are informative. “You’re acquiring the skill, and the brain should pay attention to near-misses,” Clark says. But in gambling, almost winning has no effect on the next pull of the lever or roll of the dice. “Games of chance tell you nothing about future success,” he says [Science News]. Gambling has essentially hijacked the natural reward system, Clark says, and he adds that it’s not only gambling addicts who have to worry about being tricked by their own brains. “Importantly, our volunteers in this study were not regular or problem gamblers, and so these findings suggest that the brain may naturally respond to near misses in this way” [Telegraph]. 

Slot machine makers capitalize on the near-miss effect. Researchers have found that they program their games to tease players with near misses about 30% of the time–a number previous studies have found optimal for getting gamblers to keep coming back [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The researchers also found that when they gave the test subjects a sense of control over the game’s outcome by letting them choose when to stop the first reel of the slot machine, the effect of near misses was heightened. That’s another stratagem that Vegas got wise to some time ago.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Win Some, Lose More discusses the euphoria and gloom of gambling
DISCOVER: The New Math of Gambling
Reality Base: Brain Research for Sale? Gaming Industry Looks to Science to Beat Class Action

Image: Neuron

  • Uncle Al

    Cf.: governance and investment; women’s makeup and fashion; “more studies needed”.

  • biker dude

    yee them machines are real fare otherwise.

  • beach bum

    The people in the gambling industry are so smart. Advertisers too. They are messing with us in so many ways! Thanks for spreading the word!

  • Dr. Eric Geffner

    Well, this is a very well designed study ( I have seen the details elsewhere) and it is great to have scientific validation for the truth I have seen for years. As a Psychologist who specializes in gambling addiction, we all know that the casino industry basically hijacks the pleasure reward center of the brain in persons who are neurological vulnerable to this…. for more information please consult my website.

  • Christina Viering

    So that’s why it is so hard to win.

  • perry

    I just lost a total of 800 dollars trying to win a $ 1,000 bucks – {yeah I know stupid, real stupid} in the last 3 days to a slot machine you described here, I was up 400, dollars manged to walk away only to come back 15 min’s later to the alure of ” yeah this time I can win- the “near miss” had me hooked and soon the $ 400 was gone and I was off to the atm for another 100 dollars, at times I would be telling myslef while at the machine; perry its time to walk away its time to leave, go- you won back 50% of your losses leave and ride home not so depressed, then a “near miss” but then again-another press of the max bet button until it was all gone. I could not control my actions/behavior I could not leave until it was all gone . I would even look at my fellow slot machine gamblers and I could tell which ones were hooked- just like me, watch em go to the atm machine again and again- just like me. then I turned back to my machine to press the max bet button again- near miss! almost a 1200 dollar win, then bam I got a “28 dollar mini win” oh buddy, great now i dont have to dig into my pocket for another 20, then 60 bucks later I got a medium win “139 dollars “then 20 min later its was gone baby gone- and the only thing I had left was shame and guilt-the guilt started to flow, its a long ride home from a casino when you spent your last 100 bucks that could of bought groceries, paid a bill or went to dinner/movie with a freind and if I didnt go at all this year total I would have around $ 3,000 more dollars to invest or save. I am ashamed . I came home tonight and googled your link-Your report here hit the jackpot.

    I am done playing slot machines, it almost ruined my life… I wont let that happen ever again!


  • perry

    after some more research mathmaticaly into odds of winning the 1200 jack pot are 1/50000 and considering you spend 400.00 dollars and dont win – {obiviously in my case} you would have to spend 1100 -1250 dollars { 650- over 1500 spins, I know can you belive it?} in order to have a “CHANCE” at winning a $ 1200 jackpot, that is if I have the right numbers from my research of RNG’s { random number gererators} from various internet sites on progessive slot machines. None the less the “near miss factor” which is not illegal still effects one addiction or at the very least an attraction into mis leading signals, the casinos have many different colorful animated pay line graphics the old fashioned diamonds, 7’s , 7’s with flames and then they have one where if you hit a icon you get to spin again at another free { so called} chance/near miss like you said those triggers – to thinking WOW, I almost WON- where in fact “NO” I didnt ALMOST win I just saw another example of 1/50000 chance to win based on the R.N.G’s each time you hit the button, yep-“near miss” an oxy moron like- kinda of pregnant.

    one thing to add, these slot machine techincally called “progessive slot machines” {the more money patrons put into the machines the larger the 3 different pot becomes} so not only does the gambler have a “near miss” of the jack pot they also have near misses of the 2 smaller pots { around 20- 30 dollars and 130-150 dollars for the second larger pot } and many near miss wins of $2, $5,$8 $10 $15,$20 etc…hence the gambler winning a samller pot which in effect increase the near miss effect ? so aprox a $ 20 dollar bill placed in the machine at max credits{you cant win the jack pot unless you play max credits} of $ 1.35 each time you spin last for about 5-15 mins { 15 spins at max credit cost $20.25} less or minus unless you win some of the much smaller pots, which in my opinion increases the addiction.

    I have a question , has there been a test/research on a slot machine where the slot machine did not have a exposed view of the near miss or reduced ?
    for example from my own perspective when I have played other slots like single line multipliers the old fashioned slots with 2- 3 pay lines with the 7’s or diamonds my interest level is dramaticly reduced and I rarley play these machines out of boredom becasuse you realize you dont win.

    the near miss triggers from the progessive video slots with all their bells, whistles and flamboyant animated graphics- “had” me hookd.

    it’s alot clearer now more then before, I would like to close on a very old cliche.

    “It makes no sense”

    still disgusted in myslef.



    please forgive my grammer

  • perry

    lol, your gonna like this…

    I am betting that.. {I am of the opinion} if one researched stories of people that financialy runied their lives on slot machine addiction you would find a overwhelming evidence of addiction to these animated progessive slot machines then poker and black jack combined

    like me, ones that are of addictive complusive pesonalities start out innocently enough for some fun, get the bug, win some money , face some financialy difficulties in life and BAM- the addiction takes.

    yep this link like yours pretty much explains it all…

    win some loose more

    Dr. Eric Geffner your site, work and expertise are very much appreciated I would like to thank you very much! this site really helped!



  • Me

    I fought a slot machine addiction for 13 years, 2 hour (and back) drive to the casino nearly every weekend, and $200,000 lost, I figure.. Finally, I had enough, and it got through that I was NEVER going to get ahead of this game.
    So I went into the Security offices, and signed myself up for the self-exclusion list at the two state casinos I frequented. Now, with the threat of arrest for trespassing as a deterrent, I have finally been able to quit.
    I will never go back. And don’t regret it for a second. I did myself a huge favor, and since it was my choice alone, I can live with it.

  • kay

    I have had a real slot machine addicition since a casino opened up only 15 minutes from my house. I left there today in tears and said I must finallt give this up or I am going to lose everything but more so myself!!!!! I am sure that there are so many people in the same boat now that you can get to a casino in no time at all. The near misees on the Bombay Machine had me HOOKED!!!! I would play just to see the 3 girls come up connected for a bonus. I am so ashamed of my behavior and I know that I am a more responsible person than that. The sad thing is that the many times that I was at the casino I saw so many people like me than people just enjoying a night out at the casino. I have learned the hard way that you can’t beat the casino. They say you can break any habit in 21 days and tomorrow will be day 1 for me. I feeel so guily when I think of all the money that I left in those machines. Shame on me for being such a fool.

  • Deborah

    I am concerned that Maryland is seriously considering slot machines again–that since the Tea Party candidate (Brian Murphy) didn’t win the GOP candidacy, all “bets” are off, and I am hearing again of slots, slots, slots instead of jobs, jobs, jobs. We need research on how slots and casinos affect the poor and also make people poor. We also need people to bombard the candidates with their worries, etc. about slots.

  • Ann

    One opened near my house and with in a year I was totally hooked. Out of control. I have lost many many thousands of Dollars . The Machines put me in a state Of Mind that I very much Enjoyed. Smoking cigs also . I only smoked at the casino. Small wins only hooked me more. Slots are as deadly as Drugs …. Dont Play Stay away . I am hanging on almost lost my home . My self … Thank Goddness my children are moved out and on there own. I went to GA meetings and with help I am no longer like that monster The slot machine Junkie …. God Bless

  • Tim Falkiner

    Some comments on near miss/starved reels:
    “I’m told the three dials clicking to a series of stops build up suspense far more effectively that the simultaneous halting of all dials. A glance at the arrangement of the symbols, given above, reveals the devilish cleverness of the setup. There are three bars on the second dial to raise hopes of a jack pot, but only one bar on the last dial. On the second dial there are no lemons which ruin a player; but four lemons on the third dial lower the boom on him.” – Professor Philip G. Fox, a teacher of statistics at Wisconsin University 1959
    “Generations of players have pulled slot machine handles and produced jackpot symbols on the first and second reels, seemingly just missing out on the jackpot. What happens is this: because of the differential placement of jackpot symbols players wrongly – though not necessarily consciously – believe that jackpot odds are something like 4 x 5 x 5 (100 out of 8000), while, in fact, the odds are 4 x 5 x 1 (20 out of 8000.) …” – Professor Jerome K. Skolnick 1978
    “… The most startling example was the fact that the symbols on the reels are not evenly distributed: six kings on reel 1, six kings on reel 3 but only two kings on reel 2. As only three symbols can be seen on each reel the unfortunate mug keeps believing he’s only missed a win by a couple of inches. … You just cannot beat a cheating system folks.” – Australian Society of Magicians 2007
    “It is exactly this type of super-rigging that is programmed into the pokies. Think of the five poker machine wheels as 30-sided dice. Some wheels are starved of Jackpot symbols, which is then disguised by loading a few more Jackpot symbols on other reels. The consequence is that winning the Big Jackpot is much less likely than it appears. And, the chances of “just missing” – encouraging another go – is much more likely. … The use of super-rigged poker machines is incredibly sneaky.” – Marty Ross and Burkard Polster, Melbourne mathematicians 2009
    For a full explanation read the paper “Unbalanced Reel Gaming Machines” by Falkiner and Horbay – it can easily be found with a Google search.

  • mark R

    u guys are lucky in the states u live in , over here in australia this god damned slot machines are everywere and all pubs and bars included! what pisses me off is the fact the australian government knows the damage this electronic vampires are causing to the community yet all state and federal governments dont have the guts to reduce or abolish this social vermon vampires ,for only 2 reasons ,1 they love the tax excise and 2 they are too scared to upset the aristocrat maker and moguls who own this electronic cest pools ! So everybody turns a blind eye to other wise social respnsabilities ,the funny thing is all ATM s in this venues allow saving withdrawals but none allow credit card! F unny i always thaught banks were there to help us save our hard worked savings, or so i was taught as a child in school ,when the local bank gaveaway piggy banks to help us save and understand the value of money !HOW CHEAP AS HUMAN LABOR AND HARD WORK BECOME ON THIS PLANET!

  • sharon.

    I wonder if we can sue them for Kidnapping the pleasure centre in our brains. Seriously I am pleased that this is finally coming out. I now understand WHY I got addicted instead of feeling like I was just stupid, and blaming myself for being weak. The thing is here in Australia is the government not only get the Tax from these machines but the owners of these machines -mostly Woolworths and Coles -give them massive donations too. In my day it was called bribery and corruption. Anyone in Adelaide on the 22nd of Nov are invited to come to a protest rally being held, to coincide with when Woolworths hold their AGM. On a personal note take care of yourselves. One day at a time guys.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar